Digital identification has become a focus for development policies and programs, and not a moment too soon. ID programs are being rolled out at a rapid pace, often in countries with little in the way of identification infrastructure. The capabilities of the new systems are dramatically increased through digital technology, in particular, biometrics, while their reach is expanding through integration with mobile technology. Some developing countries are at the global frontier. India’s Aadhaar program is a pioneer in digital identification on several fronts, including through the program’s integration with mobiles and financial accounts to reform the country’s vast array of schemes and programs (the so-called JAM Strategy) and its use as a platform for a range of advanced services (the “India Stack”). Similarly innovative and sophisticated systems are being rolled out in many countries.

Our new book—Identification Revolution: Can Digital ID be Harnessed for Development—considers where these trends are heading. Is everyone on the planet fated to be uniquely identified by a number? What are the implications for development? Will the new systems help people to assert their existence and their rights, strengthen the administration of public programs and enhance government accountability, and open up opportunities by reducing transactions costs? Or will the new systems exacerbate already-existing risks, such as the exclusion of vulnerable groups and the erosion of privacy? Will the considerable sums being spent on the new systems prove to be a waste of money?

The Opportunities and Risks of the ID Revolution

We wrote this book to provide a basis for discussion of this rapidly evolving area. We conclude that digital ID has the power to do both tremendous good and to inflict serious harm depending on how it is used. On the positive side, not only is “legal identity” now recognized as an SDG in its own right, but the ability to assert one’s identity is also important for the achievement of at least eight SDGs and 19 targets, from enabling access to economic resources to financial inclusion, gender equality and empowerment, social protection, and clean elections. Together, identification and enhanced payments systems, especially through mobiles, have the potential to greatly strengthen state capacity.   

On the other hand, there are also examples that illustrate the potential downsides. Some of the systems in use today to help deliver social payments or underpin engagements between citizen and state have their origins in repressive or exclusionary policies; examples include Spain and South Africa. Several countries have committed millions of dollars to ID systems that have delivered few benefits to the poor; in some cases, the formalization of identification processes had led to increased statelessness and marginalization. But, given the many powerful drivers for implementing the new systems, it is not realistic to turn back the clock. Every country in Africa, for example, either has, or has committed to, a national ID system. The task is to ensure that digital ID systems are as development-friendly as possible.

Making Digital ID Work for Development

How can stakeholders support development-focused ID systems? First, they should take the SDG agenda seriously. Together, the identity-related goals and targets include virtually all the useful applications of ID systems. If there is not a coherent plan to link systems with such uses, the ID-related investments are not likely to produce much of a development return.

Second, governments and development partners should move towards a more strategic view of identification policies and systems as a component of development policies and investments, including the goal of an integrated, lifetime system encompassing civil registration and identification. This strategic priority applies to both developing countries and their development partners; in previous research we found that donors have been supporting many ID programs, but in an ad hoc way directed to particular projects, whether a transfer or health program, or an election. This approach may have supported useful experimentation but has also contributed to multiple redundant systems.

Third, the development community needs to move toward a common set of principles to help shape engagement. These include the essential principle of inclusion of poor and vulnerable groups; a focus on the legal and institutional basis for the systems to ensure that they support, rather than erode, users’ rights (including data privacy: only about half of developing countries have a legal framework covering this area); and technical features and standards to ensure robust performance and avoid countries being locked-in by vendor-specific hardware and software.

Fourth, governments should monitor carefully the applications of the new systems and how they are experienced by those affected by the switch to digital processes. There is too little evidence of impact in this rapidly changing area.

Progress Toward a Strategic Approach to ID and Development

Fortunately, there is progress. So far, some 22 organizations—virtually all the significant players in the area—have endorsed a set of common principles to help establish a shared understanding of the issues and encourage cooperation. The multilateral development banks and many bilateral agencies have launched initiatives to facilitate a strategic approach to identification and improve our understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of multiple country systems. New initiatives, such as ID4Africa, have been established to enable South-South learning by bringing together governments, development partners, and the identification industry itself to share experiences and learn about the still-rapidly-evolving technology. Emerging work on technical standards and open source approaches can help countries avoid vendor lock-in and foster interoperability between digital ID systems, including across borders.

It is still early days in the identification revolution, but understanding the institutions, policies, and technologies shaping digital identification systems today will be critical for anyone concerned with inclusion, governance, access to rights, the quality of service delivery, and many more issues at the heart of twenty-first century development. Our book offers a primer on identification and registration systems in the digital age, including practical guidance for governments and development partners on ensuring that digital ID systems achieve their full development potential.